How can you photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland? Do you need a specialist camera, or can you just use a phone? What other equipment is needed? Read ahead to learn all about Northern Lights photography in Iceland. 

Many coming to Iceland do so almost solely to see the lights, and most of those travellers want to snap a picture of them to enshrine their memories for life, and to show their friends and family back home. Catching them on camera, however, is not always the easiest task.

If taking a northern lights tour in Iceland, your guide will likely have some knowledge of aurora photography, but it is unreasonable to expect them to be an expert photographer. The only exception is on this photography workshop, which is conducted by Guide to Iceland co-founder, world-renowned photographer, and the artist behind every image in this article, Iurie Belurgurschi.

Though this tour comes highly recommended, not all visitors can get on it. Therefore, this article will detail all you need to know about catching the northern lights without Lurie's help. 

Where to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

The serene and famous glacier lagoon of Jökulsárlón is probably the best place in Iceland to watch the Northern Lights.

The auroras appear all over Iceland, so there's no one particular place you'll need to go to see them, so long as you go at night. Of course, the Northern Lights rely on dark skies, so the further north you go, the longer nights you will have. This usually, however, will make very little difference to your Northern Lights hunt.

What is much more important is to get away from the light pollution of towns, particularly the bustling Reykjavík. While you can find a dark spot in the city, such as at Grótta, it is usually much more rewarding to take a tour or to rent a car and drive into nature yourself.

Not only will this guarantee you less light pollution, but it will also provide you will a better environment to capture the Nothern Lights against. Any photographer knows that the composition of an image is key to the perfect photo, so you should seek to include a range of mountains, a waterfall, or the icebergs of the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon to add depth and beauty to your image

Aurora photography is particularly successful on still days against a body of water, be it a lake, stream or the ocean, due to the way the lights reflect in them. 

When to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

A rainbow of the auroras arch over Þingvellir National Park.

The auroras appear all year round and at all times of the day - but in order to see them it needs to be dark, and you need a clear sky. As Iceland doesn't get dark at all in the summertime due to the midnight sun, you can only see the Northern Lights in winter, from September to April.

You don't, however, need to wait until the middle of the night to see the auroras; if they are strong, you can often see them very clearly at dusk or dawn. Photographing the auroras when it isn't completely dark outside may even help you to get focus and include more landscape in the photo.

If the auroras are weak, however, you will need to wait until night has fully set in, and you'll need your eyes to adjust to the darkness. A good trick for finding where weak Northern Lights are dancing is to look through a camera screen, as lenses let in more light than the human eye. 

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Northern lights over an abandoned fishing boat in the Westfjords of Iceland.

Catching the Northern Lights on camera requires the right equipment, knowledge, clothing and attitude. Below is a list of considerations to make before and while shooting for the aurora borealis.

Use the Right Camera

Very strong auroras can be captured on a phone’s camera, but the image will never be to the quality you can get using professional equipment. Having a decent camera where you can change the lens and settings will only add to your photographs.

Use the Right Lens

As a general rule, if your lens has a wider aperture, you’ll get a better picture. Wider apertures will allow in more light, so you don’t need to leave your shutter open so long (see the point below for more information). They will also allow you to catch more landscape in your images for a better composition. 

Use the Right Settings

Knowing your equipment is vital for Northern Lights Photography in Iceland

To capture the auroras on camera, the most important thing is a long exposure time; the longer your shutter is open, the more light will be let in, and the better picture will be painted. You can often see a little movement of the stars in the most intense images of the Northern Lights because the shutter was left open for so long.

Having a high ISO, which regards the camera’s sensitivity to light in low-light settings, is also vital, and allows you to shorten your exposure time to take more images. Care should be taken with this, however, as high ISO settings can often lead to a very grainy final product.

Any photographer will tell you that knowing your equipment is a vital element in getting pictures you can be proud of, so it’s a good idea to practice at home before coming to Iceland, taking images in low light to see what balance of exposure and ISO works for you.

Balancing ISO and exposure settings makes for a professional image of the Northern Lights.

Most digital cameras have an automatic setting, which is fine for amateur photographers who don’t care too much about the quality of their images, just about capturing the memory. Perfectionists and aspiring professionals, however, will have more success adjusting the settings manually.

As a final note about camera settings, it should go without saying that you will need to turn your flash off.

Use a Tripod

When the shutter of your camera is open, any movement to the camera's body will impact the image. Holding it in shivering hands on a cold night, therefore, will make for a blurred picture of colourful smudges that will hardly impress friends and family back home.

A tripod will secure your camera and ensure your images are sharp, crisp, and tell the story that you want them to. 

Use a Remote Shutter or Delayed Shot

Keep your camera as still as possible while shooting the aurora borealis.

Even a small nudge when pressing the shutter to take an image can blur its contents. Professional astrophotographers, therefore, always make sure they connect a remote shutter to the body of their camera, so as not to move it even a millimetre.

An alternative that most cameras have is the option to delay a shot for several seconds. While this means you won’t capture the lights at the moment of your choosing, it at least stops your image from distorting.

Make sure your batteries are charged

Iceland is cold in winter, and even colder by night; batteries, therefore, lose life very quickly. Make sure yours are fully charged before setting out, and if you plan to spend a long time hunting the auroras, either bring spares or make sure your rental car has a way of charging them.

Keep Warm

To linger long enough in the cold nights of Iceland’s winter to enjoy a good show, you will want to remain warm; there is nothing worse than having a great display of the auroras cut short due unpreparedness. It is therefore highly recommended that you bring a blanket, a thermos of hot chocolate or tea, and even perhaps a camping chair so you can sit without planting on the freezing earth. 

Dress Correctly

Iceland in winter is usually below freezing, so wrap up warm for northern lights photography.

To develop the last point, the right clothes can make the difference between a long night of marvelling over the lights without a thought about the weather, to a short one being huddled inside a bus or car worrying about pneumonia.

Extremities go cold first, so thick socks, sturdy shoes, and gloves are important. If you plan to fiddle with your camera settings on location, mittens with hoods over the fingers can allow you to quickly and painlessly make the adjustments that you need to. 

Regarding other clothing, you should dress as is recommended for all outdoor activities in Iceland in winter. Thermal underwear, wool or synthetic clothes, down jackets and windproof and waterproof outer layers are all necessary to protect against the unpredictable elements.

Know Your Destination

Vestrahorn is a great destination for aurora photography.

This does not apply to those taking Northern Lights tours, but if driving yourself, you should take into account where you are going in hunt of them. On Iceland’s weather websites, you can find out the aurora forecast and cloud forecast and plan a route based off of them. You don’t want to get lost or stuck on Iceland’s winter roads at night without knowing where you are. 

You can also take into consideration what subjects you’ll try to include in your compositions by doing this. If, for example, you want a waterfall in your image, your best bet would be to search along the South Coast. If you’d rather a lava-landscape, you should head to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and if you’re seeking icebergs, you should head to Jökulsárlón.

Show Patience 

The auroras do not show up every night in Iceland.

The Northern Lights are a phenomenon of nature, and they are thus unpredictable and fickle. Those seeking to catch them on camera, therefore, should ensure that they don’t call it a night when they don’t appear immediately, or if they only appear faintly then disappear. Sometimes the show is simply delayed, and a few more hours of tenacity will result in a great reward.

Even if all the conditions are right, you spend all night hunting, and you are still not successful, do not be disheartened or deterred. Though they can never be guaranteed, on any night, what is guaranteed is that the solar activity that creates the beautiful display is constant, and that good things come to those who wait. 

Northern lights reflect beautifully in the waterways that cut through Þingvellir National Park.